Wednesday, 17 July 2013

'North and South' by Elizabeth Gaskell (1855)

Synopsis: Margaret Hale has spent half of her childhood with her parents in their lovely rural home in the New Forest and the other half of her childhood with her wealthy relatives, the Shaws, in their home in London. Margaret's world is then turned upside down when her clergyman father decides to leave the Anglican church after having had some kind of a faith-crisis. Her father then uproots the family to the north of England and they settle in the busy, industrial city of Milton (a fictional city which Gaskell based on Manchester). Margaret's father becomes a classics tutor in order to make the ends meet while Margaret and her mother struggle to keep up their respectable appearances. Margaret has a very hard time adjusting to Milton life. She's repulsed by the city's noise, dirt and smoke and is shocked and appalled by the poverty around her. She then forms a deep sympathy for the town's mill workers and develops a stormy relationship with a man called Mr Thornton - a young and powerful mill owner and her father's favourite pupil. Thornton is a self-made man and every woman in the town (especially his mother) sees him as highly successful and desirable. However Margaret strongly disapproves of Thornton's treatment of his workers and thinks him harsh and unfair. But over time Margaret begins to realise that there are two sides to every problem and her negative views of Milton and Mr Thornton begin to change.

I've read North and South before but not for several years. This reading was my first since seeing the book's 2004 adaptation. I feel I have to get something out of the way, the thing that practically everyone picks up on when they read the book. Yes, North and South has some very striking similarities with Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The comparisons between the two books are simply unavoidable. In both of the books, a man and a woman meet and take an instant dislike to each other. However, the man's feelings for the woman quickly change. He falls in love with the woman and proposes to her. The woman rejects the man in no uncertain terms but later on she starts to think that the man isn't so bad after all. Then there's a family crisis, the man saves the day, and the woman finds out about it. Eventually the woman now realises that her feelings for the man are "quite different". The man proposes again, the woman accepts, and they live happily ever after.

However, North and South and Pride and Prejudice are also very different. North and South is not Pride and Prejudice fanfiction! North and South is set about 40 years after Pride and Prejudice and takes place in the Victorian era rather than the Regency era. Gaskell and Austen's writing styles are also very different with Gaskell's style being more wordy and descriptive than Austen's. North and South is a grittier and more serious book than Pride and Prejudice as well. Pride and Prejudice is by no means "fluff" but North and South deals with heavier themes and it has less humour. The book has got class division, Christian faith and doubt, death, and the north-and-south cultural divide in England. The book is full of fascinating social commentary. It isn't at all dry and I learnt so much about the differences between the north and the south back then.

The characters in North and South are also very different to the characters from Pride and Prejudice. Margaret Hale and John Thornton do have some basic similarities to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy but they definitely stand on their own and are well-developed characters in their own right. In some respects Margaret's character is actually closer to Darcy's than Elizabeth. Margaret's family might well be poorer than the Thorntons but they have much better connections than them. As a result, Margaret is actually Thornton's social superior and is quite cold towards Thornton at first because of her prejudices towards "tradesmen". Mr Thornton is quite a different character to Darcy too. He's a self-made man and has a job that he's very proud of. Gaskell spends quite a bit of time describing Thornton's inner feelings and emotions as well and this was quite unusual for a female writer at the time. Anyway, North and South is a brilliant book in its own right. It's a beautiful, rich and passionate love-story. It contains fascinating social commentary. It's extremely well-written. I love both Pride and Prejudice and North and South. They're both two of my favourite books of all-time and I love them in different ways! Okay?! Now I can move on!

Another reason why I love North and South is because of its characters. Gaskell's characters feel so real and even the more minor characters like Dixon and Mrs Thornton are extremely well fleshed-out. My favourite characters though are the romantic couple. Margaret Hale is very likeable and she's a heroine that you can really admire and respect. She's brave, strong, independent and intelligent and her morals are all in the right place. I'm glad that I decided to re-read North and South though because I liked Margaret much more this time around than I did when I read the book for the first time. I found myself getting annoyed with Margaret because of her haughtiness and coldness towards Thornton. But when I re-read North and South I felt like I understood Margaret more. I got much more of a sense of Margaret's loneliness and the difficulty of her position from reading the book again. She's forced to leave her childhood home - and the comfort and security of her old life - to go to a place that's hundreds of miles away. She knows that they'll have a very different sort of life there and that they'll be living on severely reduced circumstances. Then, when the Hales eventually do move to Milton, Margaret is forced to do a lot of chores because the family struggles to find a new servant. This is something that Margaret would never have been expected to do back in the south and she knows her relatives would be appalled by it. There's also the fact that both of Margaret's parents are rather weak in their own ways. They love their daughter but they often take advantage of her. They'll often confide in Margaret rather than each other so she's the one who has to pass on bad or difficult news. It really makes you wonder what their marriage was like whenever Margaret was living with the Shaws in London! Finally, the only real friend that Margaret makes in Milton is Bessy Higgins. By re-reading the book I gained a lot more sympathy for Margaret for what she has to put up with and I was able to forgive her for her flaws much more easily. Margaret makes a lot of progress in this book too. She eventually comes to realise that the south of England is nowhere near as idyllic as she thinks it is and that, like the north, it has its fair share of problems. And Margaret really does learn to respect, admire and love Thornton over time. The way she gradually falls in love with him is really well-written and believable.

And then there's Thornton who is a truly wonderful romance hero. I find that I can't read North and South without picturing Richard Armitage as Thornton now and I have to admit that I now love Thornton even more because of that! :) But even before I saw the 2004 adaptation I still loved Thornton. He has so much passion for Margaret and is inconsolable when Margaret rejects his marriage proposal. I also love that Gaskell gives the reader so much insight into Thornton's emotions and feelings. Because of that North and South is actually quite sensual for a Victorian novel. Although completely chaste there are some scenes of genuine sexual tension in the book. There's the scene where Thornton is having tea with the Hales and he's absolutely transfixed with Margaret's beautiful hands and the scene where Margaret saves Thornton from the angry mob by literally throwing herself at him and clinging to him. Thornton relives this moment in his mind over and over again. Thornton is also loyal, loving, generous, compassionate and forgiving and he matures throughout the book. Early on in the book we find that Thornton doesn't really see his workers as being individual people. He just sees them as "hands" and he doesn't think he owes them any sort of moral care. But Thornton's views of his employees and his responsibilities changes due to Margaret's influence. And when Thornton's business is on the verge of collapse he refuses to speculate and risk everyone's livelihood.

As you can probably tell I love North and South and I completely recommend it. It really is one of my absolute favourite books of all time and is definitely one of my favourite love-stories. The book is relatively obscure compared to the works of Jane Austen and the Brontes which is such a massive shame because it's every bit as romantic and gripping as theirs. Is the book 100% perfect? Well, any readers who aren't from the north of England might struggle to understand what the Higgins family members are saying. I know I struggled at times and I'd suggest that readers whose first language isn't English would be better off getting an edition with a glossary. The ending of the book is also a little bit rushed although it still finishes in an immensely satisfying way.

North and South is a fantastic book and the 2004 BBC miniseries is a wonderful adaptation of it. It stars Daniela Denby-Ashe, Richard Armitage and Sinead Cusack and it's one of my favourite literary adaptations. The miniseries takes a few liberties with the book - there are certain scenes that are removed and certain scenes that are added - but it's still an incredible adaptation. The acting, script, production values and music are all wonderful.

Rating: 5/5

P.S. It might interest some readers to know that North and South was originally serialised in Charles Dickens' magazine Household Words and it was actually Dickens who came up with the book's title. Gaskell had originally wanted to call her book Margaret Hale but Dickens told her that she should call it North and South because it had a better ring to it and it was a more accurate reflection of the book's themes. I completely agree with him!

Friday, 12 July 2013

Phantom of the Opera Challenge

1. Let's start from the very beginning! When and how did you become a Phantom of the Opera fan?
I think almost everyone knows of Phantom of the Opera. I think it's one of those stories that pretty much everyone is vaguely aware of even if they're not into musicals or silent films or have never read the book. I became a Phantom fan at around Christmas time 2008 when I read Gaston Leroux's novel for the first time. I absolutely loved it and then I ended up checking out the ALW musical and some of the other adaptations.

2. Which versions of Phantom of the Opera have you read/seen/heard, etc...?

I've read:
  • The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
  • Phantom by Susan Kay
  • The Angel of the Opera by Sam Siciliano
I've seen:
  • The 2004 movie
  • The Andrew Lloyd Webber stage version - I've seen it live on the West End and on the 25th anniversary tour. I've also seen the 25th anniversary concert DVD.
  • The Charles Dance miniseries and the Yeston & Kopit musical bootleg
  • The cartoon version
  • The Lon Chaney film
  • The Claude Rains film
  • Love Never Dies (the Australian cast DVD)
I've heard (in addition to the original ALW musical):
  • Love Never Dies (the London cast album)
  • The Yeston and Kopit cast recording
  • The Big Finish radio play
I've played:
  • The Mystery Legends: Phantom of the Opera computer game.
3. What's your favourite written version of Phantom?
The Leroux novel, hands down. All Phantom fans should read it. It's a brilliant book and it's still my favourite Phantom version of all. When Leroux wrote Phantom of the Opera he drew inspiration from many different elements. He drew from the Beauty and the Beast fairytale, his favourite opera Faust, Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris, his love of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe's detective fiction, and also classical mythology (the tale of Orpheus and the underworld and the tale of Eros and Psyche). Leroux put all of these different elements together and he came up with a fantastic story and one of the best anti-heroes ever in the Phantom. Christine is also a lot more likeable in this book than she's often portrayed in the adaptations. She's a stronger character and she has much more backbone. Yes, she's rather naive and immature at the beginning but that's kind of understandable given that her father died when she was still very young and that she was then brought up by a kind but batty old lady - and Christine does mature throughout the book. I love the fact that the book is written as a detective/mystery novel because I love that genre. I also like that so much of the book is told from Raoul's POV. It's always interesting and refreshing to come back to the book and read it from Raoul's POV because most of the adaptations focus more on Erik and Christine. And finally, I love Erik's final scene with the Persian. This is the most moving scene in the entire book and only one adaptation has it! *The Big Finish version*

4. What's your favourite screen adaptation of Phantom?
My favourite screen adaptation is the NBC/Charles Dance miniseries from 1990, even though it isn't as faithful an adaptation as the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and is only loosely based on Leroux's book. There's a silly, added backstory about Erik's parents in this miniseries - which I don't like at all - and for some bizarre reason Raoul is swapped with his older brother Philippe! Whaaa?! This adaptation is more "inspired by" than directly based on Leroux's book and it pretty much comes up with its own story. However, despite this adaptation's flaws, I just can't help but love it! It's my favourite Phantom adaptation after the ALW musical and it has such brilliant aspects to it. It still remains the only Phantom adaptation to be filmed on location in Paris and at the opera house itself. It's got great cinematography and great music. You actually get to hear quite a bit of Faust in it. This miniseries is one of the few non-musical adaptations where the Phantom actually sings. The Phantom's name is mentioned in this miniseries (Erik). It has a blonde Christine. It's got the best chandelier fall I've ever seen in a Phantom adaptation. It has my favourite Carlotta. It's funny, entertaining and moving. The actors are all really good. Its story isn't as great as the story in the Leroux novel but it's story is still a very good one. You can watch the whole miniseries on YouTube with this being the first part.

5. What's your favourite stage version of Phantom?
Although I'm very fond of the Yeston and Kopit musical it's got to be the Andrew Lloyd Webber version. It's my favourite adaptation of the book and my favourite musical of all time (after Les Miserables of course!) I must admit I do think the ALW stage version has a couple of minor faults. I find the prologue scene with Old Raoul pretty boring and I don't like that the musical makes a few hints that the Phantom might have genuine supernatural powers. But leaving these little niggles aside the ALW musical is wonderful! No matter how fashionable it's become to mock Andrew Lloyd Webber these days, the music that he wrote for The Phantom of the Opera is absolutely beautiful. The musical isn't the most accurate adaptation of Leroux's book but it's much more faithful than it's usually given credit for. The show is a visual feast for the eyes and it has stunning costumes and sets. And because it's a stage adaptation it gets reinvented all the time because of different actors adding their own interpretations. No two performances of Phantom of the Opera are exactly the same. I love this musical so, so much. 

6. Who is your favourite character in Phantom?
I hate to go for the boring and predictable answer but it's got to be Erik. Quite simply he's one of the greatest anti-heroes ever written. Erik is arrogant. He's selfish. He's violent. He's mentally unstable. He's even a murderer and kills at least two people. However it's amazing how Leroux managed to make Erik so sympathetic and even likeable despite all of these flaws. It's not as if anyone ever taught Erik any differently and his love and devotion to Christine is so touching. I also love Erik for his wry and sarcastic sense of humour. 
7. What are your favourite Phantom songs?
From the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical: Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again, Wandering Child, Phantom of the Opera, the Overture and Music of the Night. This is a rough top five though and it's liable to change!
From the Yeston and Kopit musical: You Are Music and Home The Yeston and Kopit musical technically came before ALW's musical but it wasn't released in time. When the ALW musical became a big hit, the Y&K musical's financial backers backed out. In an attempt to cut their losses Y&K rewrote their musical as a TV miniseries and took out all the songs (see the Charles Dance version). Eventually they were able to bring out their musical but it's fairly obscure.
From the Tom Alonso version: The Love You Never Had. This is a song from a very obscure Phantom musical and its lyrics are gorgeous.
From Love Never DiesTil I Hear You Sing and Beauty Underneath.

8. What are your least favourite Phantom songs?
I HATE the No One Would Listen song from the 2004 movie! OK they didn't put in the actual movie in the end but it's still an awful song! 

9. What is your favourite costume from the ALW musical?
I love Christine's Think of Me costume from the ALW stage version! I love the combination of the red, gold and green. I also love Christine's wedding dress from the Final Lair scene.

10. Who are your favourite ALW Phantoms?
Ramin Karimloo, Earl Carpenter, John Owen Jones, Michael Crawford and Hugh Panaro.

11. Who are your favourite ALW Christines?
Sierra Boggess, Gina Beck, Katie Hall and Rebecca Caine. I feel I have to give an explanation for not mentioning Sarah Brightman. Well, I won't deny that Sarah Brightman is a great singer but I'm just not a fan of her Christine. Her voice is far too operatic-sounding for my liking and she sounds like a Carlotta to me. I really don't like what I've seen of her acting either.

12. Who are your favourite ALW Raouls?
Hadley Fraser, Steve Barton, Michael Ball, Killian Donnelly and Simon Bailey. Patrick Wilson's Raoul was also one of the few good things about the 2004 movie. 

13. What is your opinion of the 2004 movie?
I've already reviewed this film on my blog so I won't go into too much depth. Overall, this film is a very poor adaptation of the stage musical and Joel Schumacher made some really poor decisions. Emmy Rossum and Gerard Butler are both completely miscast as Christine and the Phantom but they're miscast in different ways. Rossum has a pretty voice and she looks the part of Musical Christine but her acting is lifeless, wooden and bland. Gerard Butler's acting is decent but his singing, oh his singing! How on earth could Christine think the Phantom was the Angel of Music?! The Phantom's role isn't one that could be played by a competent singer, someone who's never professionally before but who could be good once they've been trained up a bit.  The Phantom of the Opera is one of the biggest musical theatre roles of all time and it requires a truly great singer! So why was Butler cast as the Phantom then? Was it because he was a big-name actor? No. Butler's a big-name now but back in 2004 virtually no-one had heard of him. No, it's very obvious that Butler was only cast because of his looks! Talk about Missing the Bloody Point! I can understand them wanting the Phantom to be sexy but it's the Phantom's voice and passion that's supposed to be sexy! His appearance is supposed to be repulsive! His face is supposed to be so deformed and distorted that it's barely a face! This brings me to the Phantom's "deformity" in this film, which is ridiculous. It makes all the lyrics that mention how hideous the Phantom's face is look stupid. We're supposed to believe that he was put on display at a freak show when it looks like his face has only got mild sunburn or a rash?! And I hate The Point of No Return scene. The Phantom makes no attempt to disguise himself and Christine obviously realises that he's singing with her right from the start. She even seems happy about it (poor Raoul). These are my biggest issues with this film.

14. What is your opinion of Love Never Dies?
I've talked about Love Never Dies before on this blog. I can't deny that the musical has some good points. The sets are gorgeous and amazing. Most of the music is pretty good and I can't help but love the Till I Hear You Sing and Beauty Underneath songs. I love some of the performers who have been in the musical: Ramin Karimloo, Sierra Boggess, Tam Mutu, David Thaxton and Anna O'Byrne. But Love Never Dies makes an absolute mockery of the original musical's beautiful, heart-wrenching ending and poor Gaston Leroux must be turning in his grave. Everyone acts completely out of character in this musical, especially Raoul and Meg. Raoul is turned into an abusive, alcoholic gambler just so we won't feel sorry for him when it turns out that Christine slept with the Phantom on the night before their wedding. Meg is now obsessed with the Phantom and is an attention-seeking stripper. Whatever happened to Meg's promising ballet career?! There's barely any plot or drama in the musical and it really makes me laugh that the Phantom seem to think that Gustave is his son simply because Gustave is musical. Er, couldn't that be because Gustave's grandfather was a famous violinist and his mother an opera singer?! As a sequel to Phantom of the Opera, Love Never Dies is a complete failure and it seems ALW has no understanding of the original musical despite writing it. The ending to the original musical is perfect: the Phantom gives Christine up, despite being in love with her, so she can live happily ever after with Raoul. It's not a cliffhanger. It doesn't require a sequel that has the Phantom ignoring what happened in the Final Lair scene and still ruthlessly pursuing Christine anyway. I feel that LND was written to satisfy the desires of the E/C shippers.

15. What is your opinion of the 25th anniversary concert?
I absolutely love it! Again, I've already reviwed this concert so I won't go into too much depth. Basically, this concert is a far better introduction to the musical than the 2004 movie! It's almost fully-staged and there are actual sets despite it being a concert. It's also full of emotion and the cast is fantastic. Ramin Karimloo is fantastic. Sierra Boggess is fantastic. Hadley Fraser is fantastic. Yes, I love Hadley Fraser's Raoul! I completely disagree with the Hadley Fraser Raoul haters who say that he was influenced by Love Never Dies' Raoul. I didn't see any of LND Raoul in him and his Raoul is never silly or foppish either. Fraser's Raoul is very strong and I actually think that his Raoul is one of the most Leroux-ish I've ever seen, in that he's a little bit brusque and is so desperate to protect Christine that it's admirable and a character flaw at the same time. I think that Fraser managed a brilliant combination of Leroux's Raoul and ALW'S Raoul. Also his All I Ask of You with Sierra Boggess is adorable, he's a great singer, and I love that his Raoul actually tries to confront the Phantom after almost being murdered by him. I also have much love for Barry James and Gareth Snook's managers who crack me up. The only thing that bothers me about the 25th anniversary concert is that some of the technical stuff is a bit ropey: some of the projections look a bit silly and the chandelier doesn't come down. But that's another very small niggle. The 25th anniversary concert is awesome! 

16. Do you like or dislike Raoul?
Like! Raoul gets a terrible rap! He's kind, handsome and dashing and he appreciates Christine's talent and truly loves her. They were childhood sweethearts! Yes he isn't as interesting and sympathetic as Erik but he's still far better husband material. And yes he doesn't believe Christine when she tells him about the Angel of Music but then most men wouldn't! The overwhelming majority of men would think that their girlfriend had completely lost her mind!

17. Do you read or write Phantom fanfiction?
No because most of the Phantom fanfiction that I've seen ships Erik with Christine or Meg and I have no interest in reading these kinds of stories.

18. Should Christine have stayed with the Phantom? Would you?
No and no! Erik has far too many mental health issues to make a good husband! As much as I feel sorry for Erik, Christine definitely made the right choice. It really bothers me when fans attack Christine for being "shallow" for rejecting him. Erik lied to Christine and manipulated her. He killed people. In the book he sleeps in a coffin and talks about himself in the third person. That's hardly sane is it?! Also, Christine met and loved Raoul before she even met Erik. The Phantom's letting Christine go at the end is a beautiful, unselfish gesture but it still doesn't make up for everything that he did or mean that Christine should now stay with him. I wouldn't have stayed with the Phantom but then again I can't sing so he wouldn't have wanted me anyway.

19. Which Phantom adaptation has the best deformity? 
The deformity from the classic silent film. Even after 80 years, Lon Chaney's self-designed make-up has never been improved upon. This is quite sad actually given that we have better make-up now and even CGI. 

20. Is there anyone who hasn't been in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera that you'd like to be in it?
Yes! I think Hadley Fraser would make for an awesome baritone Phantom. OK, so he was in the 25th anniversary concert but he's never been in the actual stage-show at Her Majesty's Theatre so I'm putting him in my list! I think Aaron Tveit should play the Phantom. I think he's still a bit too young for the role now but just give him five more years or so and he'll be perfect! Norm Lewis wants to be the first black actor to play the Phantom and I think they should let him do it. If he can play Javert then I don't see any reason why he can't play the Phantom. Tam Mutu has only played the Phantom in Love Never Dies and I think he deserves to play the Phantom in the original and vastly superior musical. I think Alfie Boe could be an intriguing choice to play the Phantom with his operatic background and he has already covered Music of the Night. He would really need to up his game when it comes to the acting though. I really want Kristin Chenoweth to play Carlotta. She's a terrific comedy actress and a fantastic soprano so she'd make for an awesome Carlotta! *Trivia: Chenoweth has actually been in Phantom before. She played Christine in the Yeston and Kopit musical* I'd really like Laura Osnes to play Christine. I've been listening to the Cinderella musical recently and she has a beautiful soprano. And finally, I will always mourn the fact that Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman never got to play Christine and the Phantom in the 2004 movie. Anne Hathaway was actually ALW's first choice to play Christine and she really wanted the role. But sadly she was forced to pull out of the project because it clashed with filming The Princess Diaries 2. Hugh Jackman was interested in playing the Phantom but because he was filming Van Helsing he never got the chance to audition for the role. I don't think the 2004 movie would have been a great movie even with these two in it but it would have been far more enjoyable!

21. Are there any Phantom adaptations that you'd like to be made?

  • Yes, there are three. Firstly I really want the BBC to do a Leroux-faithful miniseries (perhaps it could be partly based on the Big Finish radio drama?) There are plenty of Phantom films out there but none of them are very Leroux-accurate and it's been over 20 years since the story was adapted for television. Also, the BBC usually do period dramas extremely well I'd want this miniseries to be at least 3-4 hours long, I'd want it to filmed on location in Paris, and I'd want a blonde Christine. I'd also want Philippe, Madame Valerius, the Persian, Cesar the horse and the stable manager, the Phantom's house lair, the grasshopper and the scorpion, the dynamite barrels... please make this happen, BBC!
  • Secondly, I'd really like a remake of the 2004 movie in about 10 years time. I'm not as desperate for this now that I can watch the 25th anniversary concert whenever I want but the stage version still deserves a better screen adaptation, one that fixes all of the 2004 movie's flaws. 
  • Thirdly, I'd quite like Disney to do an animated film adaptation of Phantom. Yes, I know what you're thinking but hear me out! Disney have already tackled two other films with similar themes to Phantom Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And these films are brilliant! And if Disney made Phantom they'd be loads of Phantom merchandise that we could get our hands on!

22. What would your dream cast be for a Leroux or Kay-based film?
OK, I've already mentioned that I'd like the BBC to do a Leroux-faithful miniseries. I don't have a full cast in mind but I know I'd love Ramin Karimloo to play the Persian. I know he hasn't got much screen acting experience but Samantha Barks didn't have any screen acting experience before the Les Mis film and she was still fantastic in that. I definitely think Karimloo is a good enough actor to do screen acting and he's actually Iranian by birth - perfect! My top choices to play Erik are Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch. They would be amazing Phantoms. I also think that Dan Stevens could be a brilliant choice to play Raoul. 

23. What is your favourite thing about Phantom of the Opera?
Well, I love Erik and he's a fascinating character. And I love the story. I love its gothic atmosphere and that it contains mystery and horror and romance. And I love that music plays such a vital role in the story.

24. What has been your experience of "phandom"?
It's been pretty positive. All of the fans that I've actually spoken to online have been really nice. I'm glad to be a part of it. I wish the phandom wasn't so ALW focused though. I wish the book and the other adaptations would get more recognition. And I do wish that there weren't so many Gerik lovers out there who don't understand that the Phantom isn't supposed to be hot.

24. If you could play anyone in Phantom who would it be?

24. And finally, can you recommend any Phantom of the Opera YouTube videos?

Yes, this video because it's the Phantom vs Raoul battle you always wanted to see. You just didn't know you wanted to!

I also love this video because it's a scarily accurate and hilarious fan video. If you ever wanted to show someone what being a Phantom fan is actually like then this video would be the perfect way to show them.

I also love the Phantom Reviewer. He's basically the reason why I've watched so many Phantom adaptations. When I first started watching his videos the only Phantom adaptation I'd seen was the ALW version but through him I found out about lots of others. His reviews are extremely insightful and laugh-out-loud hilarious. I love how sarcastic he is! My favourite reviews of his are his Dario Argento review, his Phantom of Manhattan review, his Angel of Music, his David Staller and his David Copperfield review. They're hysterical. If you want to watch his stuff then type "Phantom Reviews" into YouTube. He also has a bliptv account and his own website on proboards. You can just google it and it will all come up. Annie Meyer's website is a goldmine for Phantom information as well. 

Friday, 5 July 2013

Downton Abbey (Series Three & A Journey to the Highlands)

Series three of Downton Abbey begins in the spring of 1920. Lady Mary and Matthew are finally about to get married and things are now beginning to settle down after the upheaval of WWI. Having said that there are still some major issues that the Crawleys have to deal with. It turns out that Lord Robert made some terrible investment choices during the War and has completely mismanaged the estate - so the family is now in a financial crisis. They might have to sell Downton and move to a smaller estate. It looks as though Matthew will be able to inherit some money which would enable him to save Downton but he's not sure if he should accept the money. It comes from Lavinia's father and Matthew is still convinced that it was his breaking her heart that sent her to an early grave. And even if Matthew does come into the money he still has ideas on how the estate should be modernised to prevent this kind of problem from ever happening again. This puts him at odds with his new father-in-law.

There's more drama in this series as well of course. Cora's thoroughly modern mother Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) comes over from America and has some clashes with Violet. Lady Edith feels that she has at last found true love with Sir Anthony Strallen (Robert Bathurst) and wants to marry him. However his age and bad health has her father and Violet concerned. The now pregnant Lady Sybil and her ex-chauffeur husband Tom Branson find themselves living at Downton after Tom is implicated in a crime back in Ireland. Like Matthew, Tom then finds himself clashing with his new father-in-law. The ex-housemaid Ethel has now fallen into prostitution and Isobel goes against convention to help her get back on her feet again. Anna is still working tirelessly to prove that Bates is innocent of murdering his late wife. Mrs Hughes has a cancer scare. Thomas's life at Downton, and his career in general, is threatened after some spiteful plotting by Miss O'Brien. We also get some new servants. There's a new kitchen maid called Ivy (Cara Theobold) and two new footmen called Alfred (Matt Milne) and Jimmy (Ed Speelers).

I really enjoyed series one of Downton Abbey. I did think it was slightly overrated and I wasn't crazy-in-love with it. There are some much better shows out there and I don't think Downton Abbey really deserved all of its Golden Globes and Emmys. However I still thought it was a very good series and I did enjoy it. I didn't feel that series two was as good as series one and I thought that it got very soap opera-esque at times - but nevertheless I still found it mostly enjoyable and the 2011 Christmas special was a return to form. So what are my feelings on series three then? Er, well, the show goes even more downhill. To be fair Downton Abbey is still better than most things on TV and it hasn't become a terrible show. It's still extremely well-acted, the production values and locations are still gorgeous, and there are a few good storylines in series three. The episode with Edith's wedding is very good. The Thomas/Jimmy storyline is very good and it makes Thomas a much more sympathetic character. Violet's scenes with Martha are really enjoyable and Violet continues to get great one-liners in the series. However, series three is still pretty boring on the whole. I think this could be down to behind-the-scenes confusion. Julian Fellowes has said that Downton Abbey was originally only supposed to last for three series - but since the show was so much more successful than ITV had anticipated they asked him to make more. I can imagine that Fellowes' original plan for the show was fairly well thought-out but now extra series have been added and it's thrown the show into confusion. I don't think it helped matters that Fellowes was also working on his miniseries about the Titanic in this very same year. I think he must have had too much on his plate and just got too busy to care as much about Downton Abbey. And the fact that Fellowes has got more projects down the pipeline doesn't give me much hope that series four of Downton Abbey is going to be an improvement.

Most of the storylines in series three just aren't that good. The worst storyline in series three is - without any shadow of a doubt! - the Bates-Anna story. It's dragged out for much longer than it needed to be and all of the Bates-in-prison scenes are incredibly boring and pointless. I was longing for Bates to beat up his evil prison mate, instigate a riot, escape and go on the run! Or for Bates to die. Or for him to get released. Just anything to stop the tedium! The storyline about whether Matthew will provide the money that will save Downton or not was unnecessarily stretched out as well. Did anyone think there was the remotest chance that Matthew would say "No" in the end?! The Mrs Hughes cancer storyline was a blatant rip-off of Mrs Patmore's cataracts storyline from series one. It also looks as though Edith is going to be having an affair with her editor in series four, a man who has a mad wife in a mental institution. Not only is this storyline a rip-off of Edith committing adultery with that farmer back in series two, this is also a blatant rip-off of Jane Eyre!

Another major problem that I had with series three is that I got really sick and tired of some of the characters. Daisy, who started off as being quite a sweet and likeable character back in series one, becomes bitchy and spiteful towards the new kitchen maid Ivy. Mary chastises Matthew for being reluctant to accept the Swire fortune and help her father manage the estate, but when Matthew does do exactly what she wanted she moans at him for doing that. I've already mentioned how unspeakably boring I found the Bates-Anna drama. Carson really got on my nerves. Also, what's happened to Lord Robert?! He was actually one of my favourite characters back in series one but that seems like a lifetime ago now! Hugh Bonneville is still doing a brilliant job playing Robert but due to the writing the character has become so unlikeable now. Towards the end of series two he cheated on his loving wife Cora and in series three he becomes if anything even more annoying! Robert is incredibly rude towards Matthew and Tom, it turns out that he's an incompetent businessman, he makes snide comments about Edith wanting to be a journalist, he's intolerant... and his wrong call even cost him his daughter's life! Robert takes the advice of a pompous Harley Street doctor over the recommendation of his trusted family doctor, and the pleas of his wife, and Sybil ends up dying not long after childbirth. Nooo! I loved Sybil! She was one of the best characters in the whole show!

In addition to series three there was also a 90 minute, movie-length Christmas special in 2012. This is called A Journey to the Highlands and it was shown on Christmas Day. We're told at the beginning of the episode that it takes place a year after the events of series three so I think it takes place during the summer of 1922. In this episode the Crawleys go on holiday to visit their relatives the Flintshires at their home, Duneagle Castle, in Scotland. The Crawleys also take a few of their servants with them - Anna, Mr Bates, Mr Molesley (Kevin Doyle) and Miss O'Brien. The rest of the servants - and Tom Branson - stay at home under the watchful eye of Mr Carson. A Journey to the Highlands is a huge disappointment and it's nowhere near as good as the 2011 Christmas special. To be fair there are some touching scenes and I loved that the episode was actually filmed in Scotland. There are some stunning location shots of the Scottish Highlands in this episode and I loved Inverary Castle (which is where all the Duneagle scenes were filmed). I'd much rather live at Inverary than at Highclere! OK, Inverary itself isn't as stunning as Highclere but its spectacular scenery more than makes up for it in my eyes!

However, I really didn't like A Journey to the Highlands on the whole. Daisy and Ivy are now friends in this episode. I'm sorry, when did that happen?! The episode spends far too much time on Shrimpie and Susan Flintshire's marital problems as well. If these characters are going off to India then we're never going to see these characters again anyway so what's the point?! Why does Fellowes spend so much time on this?! The only purpose that I can think of is that Fellowes wanted to show us that Robert and Cora's marriage could have gone the same way if it hadn't been for Violet's interference. To drive home the point, Shrimpie has lost almost all of his money because he didn't modernise the estate and the same would have happened to Robert had it not been for Matthew. The Crawley's cousin Rose (Lily James) gets quite a lot of screentime in this episode as well and she's an annoying character. I'm not happy that Rose is going to be moving to Downton in series four! It's obvious that Rose is supposed to be the new Sybil of the show but Rose doesn't have any of Sybil's likeability. There's a very derivative feel to this episode as well. Back in series one there was an episode where Mrs Hughes had a date with a man at a fair and the man proposed, only Mrs Hughes turned him down. This plot is recycled in this episode, twice! Both Mrs Patmore and Isobel Crawley have dates with men at the fair and both turn down marriage proposals! There's also a new servant called Edna in this episode who is a clone of Ethel from series two. Just like Ethel, Edna has an attitude, she makes a play for someone upstairs (Branson) and she gets the sack for it. Finally, another thing that I dislike about this episode is that Matthew dies right at the very end! Matthew was another one of my favourite characters in the show and if I'd watched this episode on Christmas Day I'd have been really depressed! Even Matthew's final scene with Mary was quite depressing. Matthew is filled with joy at the birth of his son and he continually tells his wife how much he loves her. But Mary only accepts these professions of love as what's due to her and she never once reciprocates. She just keeps going on about how she's done her duty and how proud her father will be. This woman's got issues!

I'm not really looking forward to series four I must admit. Series three is pretty boring and lacklustre on the whole and two of my favourite characters in the show have now been killed off. If series four isn't an improvement on series three then I think I'll probably stop watching Downton Abbey

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Anna Karenina (2012)

Anna Karenina is Joe Wright's third period drama and his third collaboration with Keira Knightley. Wright previously directed Knightley on 2005's Pride and Prejudice and 2007's Atonement. Anna Karenina also stars Pride and Prejudice actor Matthew MacFadyen. *Trivia: The film could have potentially featured even more actors that Joe Wright has previously worked with. Wright's first choices to play Konstantin and Nikolai Levin were his Atonement actors James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch. He also wanted his Hana actress Cate Blanchett to play Countess Lydia Ivanovna, and his Atonement and Hana actress Saoirshe Ronan to play Kitty.* Anna Karenina also features a script from the playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard.

I was very disappointed with this film because I don't think it does Tolstoy's novel any real justice. Yes, Dario Marianelli provides some beautiful music and the film completely deserved its Oscar win for Best Costume Design. I also really enjoyed Matthew MacFadyen and Jude Law's performances. MacFadyen is great fun as Anna's brother Oblonsky and provides some very welcome comic relief, and Jude Law gives a brilliant and very sympathetic performance as Anna's husband Karenin. Period dramas are also likely to enjoy the familiar faces that show up in this film every now and again. Olivia Williams, Ruth Wilson, Emily Watson, Holliday Grainger and Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery and Thomas Howes all make appearances in this film.

I have huge problems with this film though - one problem being its very theatrical look and feel. Instead of this film being shot on location in Russia the vast majority of Anna Karenina is set in a theatre and is made to look like a stage production. The catwalks serve as streets, sets move and change around, and at times even the way the actors move is theatrical and obviously choreographed. Recently I saw Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby which has a very stylised look and feel to it as well. But whereas the glamour and spectacle of the film actually suited The Great Gatsby's story, it really doesn't work for Anna Karenina. The pretend-stage setting simply doesn't work for the story. It just feels really artsy-fartsy and pretentious! The only scenes that actually benefited from the theatrical setting were the ball scene where Anna and Vronsky dance together and the opera house scene. The rest of the time it was confusing and a constant distraction. This was especially so in the first 15 minutes of the film. The opening scenes move at an absolutely manic pace with the sets changing around constantly as the characters are introduced. It's really not easy to follow and I think I would have been really confused if I hadn't already read the book. Also, the theatre that's used in the film doesn't even look all that nice! It looks really dilapidated!

Another thing that I found massively disappointing about this film is just how much of Tolstoy's story is lost. OK, I know that a film adaptation of Anna Karenina can't possibly include everything from the book otherwise it would be about 15 hours long. It's inevitable that an 800 page novel is going to face a lot of cuts to fit into a two hour film. However the scope of the book is considerably narrowed and that really affected my enjoyment of the film. As anyone who's read Anna Karenina will know, the book is actually just as much about Konstantin Levin as it is about Anna. But that's not the case here. Levin is by far my favourite character in the book and I much prefer his story to Anna's but in this film his character and story barely gets a look-in. I never got the sense that Stoppard actually cared about his character and I'm wondering why he even bothered putting him in at all. The film is far too focused on Anna. We never ever see just how depressed and humiliated Kitty is after she finds out that Vronsky has no intention of proposing to her and her time at the spa town in Germany isn't even mentioned. This was a huge mistake! Not only is that section one of my favourite parts of the book, by not even mentioning Kitty's time in Germany it means that there's no context or explanation for Kitty's scenes with Nikolai Levin. How can this young upper-class woman be so comfortable nursing a dying man whilst his prostitute lover is in the same room?! We never see Levin and Kitty's wedding, we don't see Kitty giving birth, Levin never meets Anna, and Levin's conversion to Christianity at the end feels very sudden and random. Levin's second proposal to Kitty is also done with children's spelling blocks rather than chalk which was a very random change! Even other characters that are more directly connected with Anna suffer in this film as well. It's never mentioned that Anna's affair made Karenin a laughing stock and that it ruined his career. We never see Vronsky shoot himself and we're never told what happens to him after Anna's death. Tolstoy's rich social commentary on Russian life and spirituality is completely lost too.

Now I've come to my third and final problem with the film. Well, you'd hope that since the film is so heavily focused on Anna that the actress playing her would give an amazing performance wouldn't you? Well, Keira Knightley isn't bad but I could never buy her Anna as being the mature, authoritative, passionate, voluptuous, intense, increasingly mentally unstable Anna of the book. I could never buy her Anna as a mother either. Her acting in this film left me completely cold.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Vronsky is even worse. He is so badly miscast! He's clearly far too young for the role and he's nowhere near sexy or charming enough. It really doesn't help matters that they gave Taylor-Johnson a horribly unflattering blonde moustache and wig in this film either! What does Anna see in him?! Taylor-Johnson and Kiera Knightley have absolutely no chemistry between them either and the added sex scene between them is cringeworthy and completely unnecessary.

So yeah, this film is a huge disappointment and I really didn't like it. I have seen worse book-to-screen adaptations but I've also seen a lot better! This film isn't as good an adaptation as Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice. I absolutely love Tolstoy's novel and this film simply isn't a good adaptation. I was actually quite bored for most of it. I do think that viewers who haven't read the book would be likely to enjoy it more once they've got past the first 15 minutes and have worked out who the characters are but even then I still wouldn't particularly recommend it. This film is only worth a watch for the music, the costumes, and MacFadyen and Law's performances.

Rating: 2/5
Film Certificate Rating: 12

Monday, 1 July 2013

Wise Words from Oscar Wilde

Keep Your Head Up, Keep Your Heart Strong...

I've realised that I don't actually talk about music all that much on my blog - apart from my love of various musicals. I really don't know why! I love music and my tastes are genuinely diverse! I don't just listen to showtunes as anyone who knows me would tell you. I'm going to attempt to rectify the lack of music appreciation on my blog. I'm starting with a post about Ben Howard. I was introduced to his music by my brother who'd heard some of his songs from Fearne Cotton's radio show (please don't let that put you off!) Then I bought his debut album Every Kingdom. It's a fantastic album and I've been playing it over and over again for months now. Ben Howard's music is brilliant and very folksy and if you love The Fleet Foxes and Mumford and Sons then I think you'll love Ben Howard as well. There's real emotion in his songs and they're just so soothing to listen to. He's also a great guitarist and he has a seriously sexy singing voice : ) I've got very high hopes about his second album and I really want to see him live.

The Wolves

Keep Your Head Up

Black Flies

Only Love

The Fear

Call Me Maybe - a cover version that is far better than the original : )